Tahiti-based Aranui Adventure Cruises got its start 60 years ago ferrying cargo from the French Polynesian capital of Papeete to other regional islands. Today it calls at nine atolls and islands in four of the five French Polynesian archipelagoes, delivering everything from vehicles to diapers, construction supplies and even livestock. For many passengers, the highlight of the itinerary is visiting six of the remote Marquesas Islands, made famous by painter Paul Gauguin, and authors Herman Melville and Robert Louis Stevenson.
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The line's original mixed passenger-cargo vessel, Aranui 1, was launched in the 1970s, with basic accommodations for just 40 passengers, and was followed in 1989 by Aranui 2, which could host up to 100 passengers. The 86-cabin Aranui 3 debuted in 2003 as the line's first custom-built ship, designed with passenger comfort as a priority and amenities including a pool, bars and social spaces.
In 2015, the company replaced Aranui 3 with the 108-cabin, 254-passenger Aranui 5. (There has never been an Aranui 4, as the company's Chinese-Tahitian owners believe four to be an unlucky number.)
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While the combination of cargo ship and cruise ship isn't for everyone, Aranui 5 has no equal when it comes to delivering an authentic French Polynesian experience. It begins the moment you step aboard and are greeted by the all-Polynesian crew dressed in traditional garb, playing ukuleles and passing out buds of fragrant tiare (the gardenia-like national flower) to tuck behind your ear. Even the sail-away is special, incorporating a poolside performance by dancers dressed in towering headdresses, colorful reed skirts and necklaces made from boar's teeth. The cultural immersion continues throughout the voyage with detailed daily port briefings, enrichment talks on the 118-island nation's history, and included excursions, which take passengers into the tiny villages that have depended on Aranui ships for essential supplies for more than half a century.
Sailing on the Aranui 5 certainly isn't like a typical big ship cruise experience. The onboard vibe is relaxed and casual. There's only one restaurant and dining times are limited. Members of staff mingle with passengers in the bar and dine in the same restaurant, and the affable Polynesian captain walks around in jeans and a Polo shirt, largely unnoticed and with none of the pomp and circumstance of his big-ship peers. There are no glitzy floorshows, no casino, the spa and fitness center are cramped and basic, and there's no children's programming. French is the ship's official language, but the multilingual crew also offers announcements, port briefings and excursions in English and German.
While demographics vary slightly with each sailing, most passengers come from France and Germany, though you'll also find Aussies, Kiwis, Canadians and Americans. Most are older couples (baby boomers and active seniors), but there are a few families, younger adults and solo travelers, as well. Younger travelers tend to come from Europe and stick to Aranui 5's relatively inexpensive four- and eight-person dorm rooms. Single cruisers wishing to stay in a private room pay a 50 percent supplement for their own cabin, but the line will try to match same-sex solo cruisers who are open to sharing a room.
Regardless of age, income and nationality, Aranui passengers have several things in common: they're well-traveled and curious, and they place a premium on port exploration and discovering Polynesian history and culture over having a luxury cruise experience.
Aranui Adventure Fleet
The one-ship line's current vessel, built in China in 2015, is the Aranui 5. Dubbed a "deluxe freighter," the 108-cabin, 254-passenger vessel transports cargo and passengers through French Polynesia. The front half of the 11,468-ton cargo-cruiser is essentially a large flatbed with a crane for loading items as large as vehicles and construction supplies, as well as dry, frozen and refrigerated storage containers for other supplies. Cabins, dining and entertainment areas, as well as a swimming pool are located at the ship's aft.